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"The great enemy of communication…is the illusion of it.” William H. Whyte

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"I need to smoke a fag."

In communication, context matters. The producers of some Walking Dead merchandise learned this the hard way. One of the breakout characters from the past season is called "Negan" an he uses a signature weapon, a bat wrapped around with barbed wire. The show introduced the character by having him kill one of the shows main characters. He picked which one to kill with the nursery rhyme, "Einee, Meanee, Minee, Moe...." A British retailer attempted to cash in on the show and character's fame with this shirt.


If you are familiar with the show or the nursery rhyme you know the end of the qoute "catch a tiger by the toe." But, if you are not familiar with the show, and just saw the shirt, you might think of another ending that is popular in some places and with some people, "catch a nigger by the toe." When some people complained about  the shirt and it's potentially racist connotations it was pulled. The pulling has spurred a predictable round of debate about "political correctness," largely centered around the idea that since the shirt was intended to reference a non-racist message it could not itself be racist. And, this brings me back around to the beginning of my post. Context matters.

Communication is made up of three parts; the speaker, the content (including the medium) and the listener. All three have an impact on the meaning. It is the combination of all three that creates context. The quote from the character, in the show, is clearly not racist. He uses the "catch a tiger by his toe" end to the line and it is spoken to characters so diverse they could have come right out of a Benneton ad. The speaker, the content and the listners (the viewing audience) combine to imbue a clear meaning. On a T-shirt, the meaning isn't so clear. The shirt contains less content than the show, and some listeners are familiar with the show adn some are not. Listners familiar with the show and its symbols create a meaning that is parrelel to what the speaker intended, but listners unfamliar with the show an create a meaning wildely divergent.

If you care about being understood in your communications it is important that you consider not just what you intend to say, but the impact of the medium on your message, and what listners might hear when you speak.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on, that title can either mean "I need a cigarette" or "I want to kill a gay man." Context matters.

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Discrimination isn't just Black and White

On SNL this past weekend host Aziz Ansari told a joke comparing Chris Brown supporters to Donald Trump supporters. Chris Brown was not amused. In his response, Chris Brown called Ansari "Aladdin," referencing either the Disney movie of the same name or the book One Thousand and One Nights (I'll leave it up to you to decide which). Ansari is of Indian-American descent. Chris Broswn's comment serves as an important reminder that while our conversations about race often focus on issues of  black and white, racial discrimination encompasses the entire spectrum.

Chris Brown Response to Aziz Ansari SNL Joke

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Today in Diversity - New York's Sikh police officers to replace hats with turbans

I'm totally digging the picture posted to the Twitter account.Sikh Officers in Turbans

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Implicit Biases and Micro-aggressions

There has been a lot of chatter over the last year or so regarding micro-aggressions, and their impact on marginalized groups. An incident in the NBA this past week illustrates how they happen, how they impact people, and a great way to react to an observation of one if you are a cisgendered, white male. Last week, Phil Jackson, General Manager of the New York Knicks, had this to say about LeBron James, a player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his friends and business associates:

You can't hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland. I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way. [emphasis added] 

A lot of people observed the coded nature of the word "posse" and called Jackson out on it. A lot of people had a lot to say about whether Jackson was or was being racist. LeBron said this in response:
It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter that's done so many great business [deals], that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.
At the end of the day, it often doesn't matter what your intent was, it is the listener who will often define your meaning, and this is especially true when talking about micro-aggressions. A lot of people get distracted by the coinversation about whether they intended the micro-agression, whether they intended to be discriminatory. A better reaction for you and your team is the one evidenced by this statement from Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy:
"I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I've used that word before, OK. And when that all came out I had to ask myself, have I ever used that word before with a white player, and the answer is no. So, I think, look, you have to be aware of the language and you have to be aware a little bit of your own biases if you're going to overcome them and so I took that seriously."
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The Value of Face Time

That title does not refere to the Apple video chat app. In fact it is intended to capture the opposite. An article here, in Nautilus, details research into the ways our diverging viewpoints are formed by how and who we communicate with, and ways in which we can bridge the widening gap. The research suggests that even brief conversations with people with different viewpoints and backgrounds might help broaden our worldview. For best effect though, those brief interactions have to be face-to-face IRL ("In Real Life"). In the workplace, it is very easy to become isolated from our colleagues. If you want to increase the effectiveness of your teams, and fully leverage the value of your diverse workplace, you have to create opportunities for people to interact with each other on a regular basis. We can help, ask us how.

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The Value of Trust

The Freakonomics Radio has an interesting podcast this week discussing Social Trust and Social Capital. One of the best predictors of effective communities is trust among members, and one of the best predictors of trust is homogeniety. There is less trust in more diverse communities, but diversity leads to increases in creativity and productivity. Less diverse teams may work better in the short term, but more diverse teams will win in the long run. The podcast is here. Want to increase the diversity of your team, and its effectiveness; ask us how.

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Confronting everyday bias in friends and colleagues

The New York Times has an interesting article about how we can confront biased speech, and the impact of even the mildest puchback. Some of the suggested responses:

  • take ownership instead of going on the attack, say something like "this is bothering me because;"
  • respond to the statement as if the person is intentionally being outrageous rather than making the statement seriously; or,
  • just change the topic.

One thing the article and researchers note is that doing nothing gives the speaker tacit permission to keep using offensive language. 

The article has a lot more to say, and can be found here (article may be behind paywall).

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